South Africa plays an unofficial Big Brother to Zimbabwe, which the latter grudgingly accepts both as a function of geopolitics as well as acknowledgement that South Africa continues to be negatively affected by happenings up north.
The latest crisis in Zimbabwe comprises of the familiar stories of human rights abuses and repression amid deepening socio-economic problems.
Authorities in Harare have been arresting, torturing and harassing opponents, the most prominent of whom has been investigative journalist Hopewell Chin'ono. Chin'ono was arrested at the end of July along political activist Jacob Ngarivhume, allegedly for inviting public violence or agitating for the unconstitutional removal of the Government of President Mnangagwa and the ruling Zanu-PF party. His arrest, and continued detention, have been condemned globally.
The two were seen as the driving forces behind a nationwide protest planned for July 31, around which the opposition coalesced generating messages such as the dominant #ZanuPFMustFall. Other grievances included rampant corruption, emblematised by the $60million Drax scandal, linked to the President's family. On the other hand, nurses and doctors are on strike and public hospitals ill-equipped. It is a dire situation made worse by the pressures of Covid-19 which is now increasing exponentially. The healthcare system has just collapsed following years of neglect as the more privileged classes opted for treatment abroad.
Other socioeconomic indicators are as dire: workers hardly earn enough, and the currency has been routed by an inflation of over 700 percent.
So, July 31 was supposed to illuminate this crisis so that the world could see what is going on in the troubled southern African nation. However, the Government responded by preventing mass demonstrations from happening, invoking strong security force power that saw the country's major towns and cities, notably the capital Harare and the second city of Bulawayo being emptied at the barrel of the gun, as uneasy peace reigned.
Both Government and the opposition claimed victory.
What immediately followed, though, was more interesting. A social media campaign, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, took root and just blew off the internet as 700 000 tweets made Zimbabwe a global trend with ordinary people, celebrities, political parties, and influencers demanding action on Zimbabwe.
In South Africa, the cacophony was huge: from musicians such as rapper AKA to politicians such as Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane.
This week, the South African government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (DIRCO) and the ruling party ANC issued statements putting on record that South Africa was concerned about developments up north.
The government said it was sending envoys on a fact-finding mission.
This is a significant development.
For starters, it incredible that South Africa responded expeditiously and rather publicly, for a country that had doggedly pursued "quiet diplomacy" with respect to Zimbabwe for the past 20 years. In recent times, comments about Zimbabwe have been coming from regular sources such as the United States of America, Britain and other Western countries through their embassies and international bodies and human rights affiliates.
South Africa's intervention indicates there is something is deeper and worrying for the regional powerhouse and current chair of the African Union – and that is beyond popular calls for intervention.
A fortnight ago, it was revealed that the Zanu-PF Politburo had heard of an internal plot to remove Mnangagwa and replace him with his powerful deputy, Constantino Chiwenga, the former army general that toppled ex President Robert Mugabe before deferring leadership to Mnangagwa, rather unexpectedly.
It is widely acknowledged that Chiwenga hungers for power, the more urgently because of failing health and indications that Mnangagwa may not be willing to cede power in a gentleman's way within the context of internal dynamics. Hence, a showdown is likely, and will no doubt be bloody and throw the country into serious turmoil that will spill over into the region. South Africa's intervention could be an attempt to forestall this.
The secondary reason – the most apparent – is that of South Africa responding to popular pressure. This is motivated by the country's moral suasion and the fact that the ruling party ANC could be seeking to take the initiative at a time the opposition has been vocal about the Zimbabwe issue and scoring rather cheap political points. Politicians in South Africa use the deeply divisive Zimbabwe question as a show of character, for different reasons. The ruling party, as an expression of regional solidarity and political leadership; the Economic Freedom Fighters to assert dubious pan-Africanist credentials and the Democratic Alliance as the official shadow foreign affairs, listening post for Western interests and the biggest potential partner of Zimbabwe's main opposition.
Lastly, connected to all three above, is the fact that the South African government has been pressured by the international community to do something, most probably find ways to get Zanu-PF and the opposition together in yet another power-sharing arrangement.
But South Africa is likely to find a tough customer in Harare: the regime, cornered as it is, is likely to be intransigent and uncooperative at first because of ego problems.
But, as things are going to be worse politically, socially and to a lesser extent economically over the next few months, barring a precipitate crisis such as a coup or a more organised general uprising, dialogue will become inevitable.
The cost of an implosion in Zimbabwe whether it is a military crisis or a much prolonged typical political, social and economic crisis; is bad for South Africa and the Sadc neighbourhood.
Zimbabwe remains the sick man of the region.
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